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Settling the Future: The Colonial Mindset in Transhumanism
Benjamin Abbott   Jul 11, 2012   Ethical Technology  

While I share dreams of interstellar travel, I find positive invocation of European colonialism profoundly problematic. If posthumans see themselves as Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, and John Smith when they set off for the stars, expect very bad things. Let’s decolonize our desires, folks.

I have had a number of disagreements with IEET commenters recently, for example:

“If we make it past the growing pains of a Type one civilization, it means that all of those worlds are ripe for colonization without any worry of conflicting with natives.” – Christian Corralejo

Is this the goal? The glory of exploration and expansion minus the practical and ethical problems of negotiating cultural differences and competing claims to resources? The native appears simply as an obstacle in this narrative. The problem with colonialism doesn’t come from the colonial mindset and drive for domination, but rather from the circumstances (native populations) that impede and trouble the colonial mission. Space then presents the possibility for the fulfillment of the American myth of virgin land and the conquest of nature, not men (to use nineteenth-century phrasing).

The iconic Cosmist goal of intelligence expanding outward from Earth at the speed of light (or faster) and converting all matter into self-aware computronium turns ominous when coupled with these colonialist resonances. Because futurism comes out of the European and Euro-American intellectual tradition, the culture of settler colonialism and its exaltation permeate futurist discourses. For the project of intelligence expansion to produce positive results, I recommend we look critically a the continuing legacies of colonialism and develop a novel imaginary framework.

But as fascinating as the specifics distant prospects like interplanetary exploration are, I’m most concerned about what effects colonialist nostalgia has here and now. While generating material abundance for some, the scientific-industrial model of runaway resource extraction enable by European colonialism has gotten the species into a lot of trouble over the last two centuries. The vision of indefinite expansion has the potential to sustain the present unsustainable system, detracting from the ongoing horrors of settler colonialism by coding the colonial mission as essentially noble if unfortunately implemented. There’s much to be said for focusing on this giant ball of iron and the humans here first and foremost.

“…it goes back IMO to what Fukuyama… writes: if we encourage a motley coalition of culturally conservative oppressed—and they are in fact v. oppressed—we go nowhere fast. You can communicate with them as you please, however for me to be honest with them it would be the proper thing to say to them their culture only interests me i.e. artistically/anthropologically/archaeologically—otherwise such contains little or nothing of a progressive nature. I feel quite strongly that we go nowhere by attempting to be all things to all progressives—assuming they are even progressive as we define progressive in the first place. To put in plain language, what do ‘Indians’ have to do with technoprogressivism or even progressivism as conventions define technoprogressivism? Besides, re Native Americans, it has gone way past colonialism… White nationalists are often oppressed poor as well; what would reaching out to them accomplish? they have told me they fear the effects of transhumanism on their families… we would have a similar difficulty with reaching out to other oppressed primitives. Wasted motion. College students, yes, and many others who are receptive; Native Americans?: I see it as simply a waste of time in proving we are caring (or smarmy) towards minorities…” – Intomorrow

Intomorrow’s expressed derision toward the oppressed in general and Native Americans in particular on the basis of technoprogressivism reinforces my abiding suspicion of the progress narrative. Ey suggests hopping on that spaceship to awesome and ignoring the “oppressed primitives” that are too “culturally conservative” get on board. I’m not even sure what ey means by progressive, but I assume it approximates IEET’s broad position about ethically employing powerful emerging technologies to improve or transcend the human condition. Intomorrow describes the impoverished and brutalized masses as too poor soil to grow the glorious future. Because of backwards cultural values that incline them to mistrust the technoprogressive agenda,  these people have little or nothing to offer.

While idiosyncratic in its details, I would guess that this position resonates in the transhumanist community. Those in positions of privilege typically take pleasure in describing their others as behind the times if not downright uncivilized. Progressive white folks fixate on communities of color as homophobic and misogynist; owners and coordinators bemoan working-class racism. These tales serve to justify racial and class domination.

I argue that such claims about cultural deficiencies of the oppressed do no useful intellectual work. As an alternative conceptual framework, I recommend the intersectional approach to identity and power. Needless to say, we shouldn’t idealize the oppressed – even the super oppressed! – as sources of absolute truth or unmediated knowledge. Huge cultural barriers indeed hinder radical organizing.  However, Francis Fukuyama’s elitism and its echoes contribute nothing to overcoming these challenges and crafting successful coalitions.

In this context, Intomorrow stands out for how ey unambiguously identifies indigenous people – “Indians” – as irrelevant. As an example the racism, notice how ey juxtaposes “college students” with “Native Americans.” While I’m tempted to stress the value of indigenous culture the project of sustainability and elaborate on the revolutionary credentials of Native peoples, doing so threatens to replay the hegemonic dynamic that centers settler desires. Native lands, communities, cultures, and religions have too long been taken as a resource for non-Natives.

Instead, I repeat and expand on my initial claim that contemporary technoscience relies on exploitation and environmental devastation. The record of uranium mining and nuclear weapons production here in New Mexico illustrate how this pans out. Furthermore, I add that technoscience in the Americas rests on the foundation of settler colonialism. Like the Middle Eastern oil that drives the United States economy, close to every acre comes drenched in blood. As Native lands continue to be targeted for resource extraction – especially of energy resources – this dynamic belongs to our own twentieth-first century as much as the nineteenth. Any attempt to make technoscience ethical must directly confront settler colonialism to have any hope of success. As the syndicalists say, an injury to one is an injury to all.

Intomorrow’s style of futurism scares me silly. The so-called unwashed masses – including poor white nationalists, as incomparable as they are to Natives – have legitimate reasons for rejecting assertions of cultural superiority from those with material power over them. Death to all domination everywhere, however rationalized. I dream of wide alliances based on egalitarian and anti-authoritarian principles mighty enough to overturn the status quo. I want this process to include transformative technoscience, but only under the rubric of freedom and equality. If mines shut down and iPhones don’t get built, so be it. If innovation can’t be done right - without victims - I’m willing to wait or go without. Here’s to revolution and relationships – not progress.


Image 1: The landing of Christopher Columbus

Image 2: The Cherokee “Trail of Tears”

Benjamin Abbot is a genderqueer, transgender PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.


You miss interpreted my comment.  If you follow the thread I posted that comment in you would realize that I said we wouldn’t have to worry about any extrasolar inhabitants because their probably wouldn’t be any there to begin with and in the same thread I gave the reasons why (and some links to back it up).

I’m very much in agreement with this stance. Terasem has a very complimentary approach to your argument. I was writing a very similar argument myself, but it seems you have beaten me to the punch, which I am actually thrilled about because it means I am not the only one who sees what is going on around here.

When we talk about progress we always have to ask ourselves: progress towards what?

I agree that the goal should not be domination of other civilisations, and also that we should not be so dismissive of entire segments of society that are “culturally conservative” that we lose all hope of taking them along with us. By “we” here I mean those of us who are generally supportive of transhumanist and/or technoprogressive goals.

Does this mean that I want to align myself with the statement, “Here’s to revolution and relationships - not progress”? No. Revolution cannot be an end in itself, not if you actually care about the future. Relationships are fine - we all need them - but what kind of relationships? Egalitarian ones? Not only, surely? And whatever positive vision we do have of the future, we presumably do then want to progress towards it. Perhaps we need a revolution to get there - or perhaps we don’t - but unless the intention is merely to be provocative, being “against progress” seems self-contradictory. Even conservatives are not “against progress”: they are just more focused on preserving what they like about the status quo, rather than what they want to change. Conservatives and progressives (techno- or otherwise) do not need to be enemies. They just emphasise different things.

Ben got my quote right, and I stick to it; not to write any of you so dedicated (or quixotic) cannot attempt to communicate with culturally conservative oppressed if you care to—but I want to avoid them like the plague.
Will go further than before: 99 percent of the Native Americans I have met are the most reactionary people one could meet; oppressed yes; progressive, no. It is a mistake to think that because someone is downtrodden there is anything necessarily forward-looking or noble about them.
You can attempt to make out anyone to be progressive as well, if you wish to perceive them as such. If you wanted to think of the Amish as progressive, you might be able to convincingly rationalise them as being so. You may possibly be able to deem Tim McVeigh (who was an oppressed army vet) as having been an “urban renewal activist” who demolished a building to make way for new structures in the vicinity

You can justify anything you want.


I agree. As you say, “progressive” can mean many different things. It just depends on what you want to progress to. But if someone’s focus is on keeping things the way they are, or reverting to some (real or imaginary) golden age in the past, it would be a stretch to call such people “progressive”. And if 99% of Native Americans you have met are highly reactionary, and assuming your sample size is not too small to be more than strictly anecdotal, then this must be telling us something important, and we must not allow political correctness (or even Right Speech) to prevent us from recognising it. As you say: it is not because someone is downtrodden that there is necessarily anything forward-looking or noble about them.

What may be happening, though, is that the oppression is itself feeding the reactionary, self-limiting values that tend to circulate in oppressed people. And in this context summerspeaker may have a point: perhaps after all we can bring these people along with us, but we will do that not so much by going all out with our gung-ho progressivism, but rather in fighting against the mechanisms of oppression that are feeding self-limiting cultural conservatism. Bearing in mind, though, that these conservative memes are themselves one of those mechanisms. If we care about these people at all, then somehow we need to find a way to give them a sense of hope that is not wholly illusory. And for that, we first need to ensure that we ourselves have a sense of hope that is not wholly illusory.

(Again, I am using “we” here to mean broadly those of us who tend to be supportive of transhumanist and/or technoprogressive goals.)

.. perhaps I’m misunderstanding Ben, maybe he is doing what Giulio is doing: taking an extreme posture (in Ben’s case, radical chic) and hashing things out.. which is what politics is largely concerned with, plus there are what Pete called useful fictions (more accurate than my term—‘necessary fictions’—as they may or may not be necessary yet they are in fact useful); this may be a factor in what Ben writes. He wants to stir up a radical argument in getting a discussion going.
But I grew up in a radical chic environment; it’s stale IMO, 20th not 21st century politics.
Now if Ben wants to try to communicate with old-fashioned minorities (or any of the backward) he can naturally do so; IMO it is fools’ errand, the number of old-fashioned listeners who would be influenced to become progressive/technoprogressive is so negligible it would be wasted motion—better for Ben to spend a couple hours writing a piece for IEET than travelling to a Native American reservation to jawbone the natives.

Pete, I don’t say cultural conservative oppressed are hopelessly backward however the timeframe is so vast in changing them only a total geek would want to reckon on how long it might take. Yet we know the timeframe is decades without knowing how many decades. Main point is, people only care about their own families, they help others out of pity/ noblesse oblige, but they do not really care much; they are busy thinking about their own lives, their own families’ lives. If people cared about others’ families, children wouldn’t live in slums—no one would live in slums. I’m not upset about what Ben writes albeit it is tiring dealing with dyspeptics on the Right, and naifs on the Left.
What Ben writes has been written a thousand times.

What Ben writes has been written a thousand times (and indeed many times more than that), but it’s not as black and white as “people only care about their own families”. It’s more complicated than that. Human motivation is a complex, fickle thing, and altruism is not always the result of pity or “noblesse oblige”. Nor is pity always an attempt to assert one’s superiority (though often it is).

Perhaps the main conclusion we should be drawing is that we shouldn’t be trying to jawbone anyone, at least not primarily. Stating one’s views is important, but listening even more so, and this is where Right Speech DOES become important. Once it has become clear that one’s interlocutor is not receptive to one’s ideas, better to back off or change the subject…or better still, to become curious about how such a person thinks.

So when it comes to native Americans or any other category that we might consider to be oppressed and/or culturally conservative, rather than making it a choice between “jawboning” them and dismissing them altogether, an even better choice might be to try to deepen our understanding. In this context I’m not convinced that it necessarily takes decades to change the way they think. It really depends on the circumstances.

In fact, my main gripe with Ben’s article is not that it is naïve, but that it comes too close (for my liking) to being anti-progressive. And we should not be anti-progressive. Conservative is OK, egalitarian is OK, anti-colonialist is OK, but anti-progressive is not. If we oppose any kind of progressivism, then we are truly giving up hope, and defeatism (unlike rational pessimism) is dangerous. And the pursuit of revolution as an end in itself strikes me as positively nihilist.

57% of the Native folks I’ve met are the most revolutionary individuals out there, but you know what they say about statistics. Remember that plenty of Native Americans reside outside of reservations for some or all of their lives. Stereotypes both perpetuate oppression and muddle our thinking. Just because indigenous people to tend to value tradition, community autonomy, and environmental justice rather than salvation via technology doesn’t make them reactionary.

This discussion illustrates where I differ with mainstream (if such a thing exists) technoprogressivism and transhumanism. Y’all seem most concerned with getting to that awesome future or at least with convincing others to thinking positively about technoscience. I want the transformation in human relationships away from hierarchy and inequality. In the absence of such change, I don’t expect much good to come from the march of innovation. I contrast “reactionary” with “revolutionary” rather “progressive.” If political project opposes the established power structure and promotes freedom, I’m down, regardless of whether it looks backwards for inspiration. All programs of reclaiming or returning to the past in fact constitute a future vision.

Peter’s suggests that I lean toward anti-progressivism. I’d need to unpack exactly what that term means to be sure, but the observation strikes me as accurate. Though decidedly both, I’m an anarchist first and transhumanist second. I hold abiding skepticism for all things related to the narrative of progress, which I view as intimately entangled with European supremacy and the associated oppressive cultural values. While also thoroughly troubled, the revolutionary tradition appeals to me over the progressive one. Yes to Ricardo Flores Magón, no to Theodore Roosevelt. I feel far greater affinity with primitivists who want to bring down civilization to end oppression than I do with elitist Singularitarians who assure us techno-heaven approaches as long as we stay the course of industrial capitalism.

To clarify, I advocate collective liberation based on solidarity, not patronizing attempts at conversion. The orientation of trying to “bring these people along with us” reiterates hierarchy. Yes, I want to spread transhumanist ideas, but not on the evangelical model. The following quotation from a Queensland Aboriginal activist group sums this up beautifully:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Few if any of us like being coded as inferior. Missionary endeavors encounter that inherent problem and at best create a new privileged class. Often they simply arouse resentment. Let’s try mutual aid instead.

For me, it’s not such a stark choice between Magón and Roosevelt, nor between nihilist revolution and complacent élitism. If the evangelical model means “spread the news”, then I see nothing wrong with it.

In a sense, this is less a debate between progressivism and egalitarianism than between anti-colonialism and anti-PC, where by “PC” I mean obfuscation in the name of upholding values. I prefer to retain, à la Hume, a strict separation between empirical truth and values, and like Giulio I prefer to call a cat a cat. If a category of people tend to be reactionary, then let us say so (when relevant).

Admittedly, the danger of arousing resentment is a real one. But why is getting resentful on their behalf any less superior, any less “trying to help them” (shock, horror), than discussing whether we can “bring them along with us”? For me, wanting to bring people along with you is a perfectly natural human aspiration, and also a perfectly noble one. It doesn’t necessarily imply any fundamental assertion of superiority, any more than, “Hey I just discovered a cool new place to eat, want to check it out?” does.

Besides, I think we have better things to do than to avoid arousing resentment. It’s difficult to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, but it’s not impossible, and nor is it wrong from my perspective. Also, just because someone says they don’t want help doesn’t mean they don’t want help, less still that they don’t need it.

So we need to decide: do we care about cultural conservatives or not? If not, why are we talking about them? If so, how do we want to help them? By converting them to progressive values, by freeing them from oppression, or perhaps just by listening? Perhaps that way we will indeed get to mutual aid.

“57% of the Native folks I’ve met are the most revolutionary individuals out there”

The most politically revolutionary people of all time were National Socialists; revolution ‘a la mode is synonymous with nihilism.

“What Ben writes has been written a thousand times (and indeed many times more than that), but it’s not as black and white as ‘people only care about their own families’. It’s more complicated than that. Human motivation is a complex, fickle thing, and altruism is not always the result of pity or ‘noblesse oblige’. Nor is pity always an attempt to assert one’s superiority (though often it is).”

You are correct, Pete; I wrote the points as shorthand so as to not write a thesis on each point, which would be necessary for starters. Will write a piece here next month during the Dog Days of August.
What Ben writes would be positive for newbies to read, but my parents gave me ‘The Autobiography Of Malcolm X’ in 1966—during the transpired 46 years I’ve heard it all far too many times to retain interest. As for Native Americans, all over Wyoming and N. Colo. the NAs I met were no more interested in the future than white nationalists.

If you want to make generalizations, the correct group to identify as reactionary would be white people. For example, see this recent opinion poll on socialism versus capitalism. White respondents had the most favorable opinion of the former and the least favorable of the latter. Given how whites on average benefit much more from the capitalist economy than Native Americans, blacks, and Hispanics, this makes perfect sense. White people have a material incentive to oppose radical economic change and racial equality, which go hand in hand. Given my personal experience with whites across the United States, IEET wastes its time by trying to get them to support fair and equal access to the fruits of technoscience. (Note: This paragraph is at least half serious.)

Sorry, I mixed up my formers and latters there. The white folks surveyed liked capitalism and disliked socialism more than the other identified racial groups.

For the world as a whole, can’t say, would have to do enormous traveling to know, and even then one has to live in another land, not merely visit, to know what is going on and—more importantly for IEET—what the possibilities are. But though I don’t know ‘capitalism’ v. ‘socialism’ (for instance Mussolini was a corporatist and Hitler was somewhat of a socialist, he had intense sympathies with proletarians.. white proletarians) it is true whites are more oppressive, they possess the bigger guns. So there we are in agreement, if we are ever in agreement, Ben.
Power does grow out of the barrel of a gun, which is why anarchism albeit well-intentioned is gullible to an unacceptable degree. Tolerable, yes, but not acceptable. There’s about as much of a chance we can live in this century sans statism as Christ returning to Earth.
I can only give a personal response, naturally: if you are doing what Giulio is doing, fine (e.g. Giulio’s piece on reincarnation was quite unique); if you want to provide a perspective that isn’t white-bread, all to the good—yet, IMO of course, we wont go anywhere further than we would with the Christian, Mormon, Libertarian, etc., perspectives. What you say is interesting otherwise no one would comment at your article however such doesn’t mean you are correct. Didn’t Marx write about “a mirror image in reverse” concerning reality?: that’s a risk we face.
Marx got a great deal wrong, but he knew anarchism is a mirage receding into the horizon; the shorthand of the Why is that there are too many violent, power-mad people in the world, far too many.
My strong hunch is anarchism might be a 22nd century mode, not 21st; there are 88 years left to this century, in those years perhaps anarchism can be realized—but not in the near future. more for the road:
what RFK said concerning the promotion of optimism probably is akin to where Ben and Giulio, etc., are coming from.. Kennedy said, to paraphrase: ‘some talk of realism and limits, some dream impossible dreams of liberation’; the inference being he would have erred on the side of optimism, ‘impossible dreams’.

And in some locales one would know genuine positive-radical Native Americans, in ‘Frisco and Berkeley for example you can meet all sorts. NYC, too. If Ben lives in Taos or some other decent town/city, then sure. However you can say the same for gay Republicans, ‘Log Cabin Republicans’ are gay—but they are anomalies, and all we have to do is admit it.
I’ve heard about ‘glimmers’ of h+ hope for a couple decades, longer in an inchoate sense. Yet one shouldn’t confuse glimmers with floodlights.

I don’t see capitalism as inherently reactionary, not socialism as necessarily progressive. A genuine commitment to the freely functioning market is transformative, not conservative. The Soviet Union, once it had achieved industrialisation and until it broke up, was a considerably more conservative place than the capitalist US.

Of course, it is no surprise that white respondents tend to favour capitalism over socialism, in comparison with other respondents. The disadvantaged have more to gain from redistribution of wealth than the privileged, and overall whites are still privileged in the US (and Europe). So yes, white people have a material incentive to oppose radical economic change (driven, for example, by genuinely free markets) and racial equality.

But all this is somewhat off-topic. The question is whether there is indeed an unhealthy “colonial” mindset in transhumanism, and if so what to do about it. In this context, my main disagreement with summerspeaker concerns his disdain for what he calls “the narrative of progress”, or more precisely the conclusions he draws from that. Of course we need to be critical of our history, but not so much so that we abandon any concept of progress and take refuge in destructive ideologies.

“The question is whether there is indeed an unhealthy ‘colonial’ mindset in transhumanism”

Yes there is, the big example—far larger than oppression of Native Americans—is how America doesn’t give diddly squat about the people of the Mideast—America is a petroleum junkie who perceives the Mideast as a giant oil spigot.
It’s not so much that people hate each other, it is that they don’t care.

Right. And this “colonial mindset” - which in reality is nothing more than a logical consequence of human nature - must of course infect transhumanism as well. After all, transhumanists are distinguished by our dreams of a posthuman future, not by an especially well-developed immune reaction against colonial thinking. So summerspeaker is right: there IS a colonial mindset in transhumanism, albeit not more so (and quite possibly less so) than in the general population.

Which then leads to the second question: what to do about it. Not by rejecting the idea of progress in my view, nor by embracing destructive ideologies such as anarchism (except, as you point out Intomorrow, as a utopic ideal for the far future). In my view the most promising approach is to attempt to spot and dismantle colonial thinking in our own mindset. In this context summerspeaker’s articles play a valuable role, but they could be improved. What we need, surely, is a positive vision for transhumanism that is determinedly non-colonial. And for me, this means paying special attention to the preferences of those who are sceptical, suspicious or simply ignorant of tranhumanist ideals, not least since they currently make up the vast majority of the world’s population.

“not least since they currently make up the vast majority of the world’s population.”

The above is the biggest issue of all, and sometimes it infuriates me: is it talking to the deaf for decades on end? Because if it is then I’m the fool, not those who don’t listen.. they are not wasting their time.
Only major flaw in what Ben writes is for instance the smallness in importance of the Native American situation contrasted with the situation in the Mideast; think of how poor whites are no better off than Native Americans, something perhaps relatable to what Fukuyama means when he wrote of “motley coalition” although it isn’t of course a coalition; it is oppressed having much in common in their being oppressed—but little in common with each other.
Good news is maybe the Arab Spring has made the Mideast more peaceful, there may be less of an interest in war as the actors are preoccupied with consolidating whatever gains they have made due to the revolutions. If this is part of what Ben meant by revolution, then it becomes clearer. We know Ben wants justice, unfortunately if we are complicit in poor whites wanting what they want, in indigenous wanting what they want, in attempting to please diverse groups, we are encouraging fascism in miniature; whether it’s Mosley, or Jeremiah Wright, a poor white nationalist, or an indigenous group, there is no cohesion, it is isn’t actually diversity; it isn’t “let a thousand flowers bloom”, it’s not flowers, it is weeds.

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